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In 1880, young John L. Sullivan rejects an opportunity to play baseball for the Boston Red Soxes and instead chooses to become a boxer, much to the chagrin of his father Michael. At a church social, Father O'Malley, the parish priest, publicly questions the morality of professional boxing, but, privately, he fully supports John. That evening, John proposes to his childhood sweetheart, Kathy Harkness, but she questions their future together. After winning his first fight in New York City, John, called "The Boston Strong Boy" by the sportswriters, pronounces that "I can lick any man in the world." Richard Martin, a newspaper publisher, then arranges a match between the little-known John and top-ranked boxer John Flood, which the Boston fighter easily wins. While training for his championship fight against Paddy Ryan, John attracts the interest of Anne Livingstone, a singing star from the New York stage. Upon becoming the undisputed bareknuckle champion of the world, John returns to Boston, only to be rejected by Kathy, who openly questions his character. On the rebound, John marries Anne and begins drinking. Despite his new training companions--champagne and ale--John remains undefeated and travels to London, where he meets Edward, the Prince of Wales. Back at home, however, rumors persist about trouble in the Sullivan marriage, which Anne denies to Richard. John and Anne then travel to Paris, where he defeats Monsieur Claire, a French kickboxer, in a barroom fight. Back in Boston, the alcoholic John opens his own tavern, to the concern of Flood, who has become his friend and sparring partner. On his wedding anniversary, a palm reader tells John that he is "a very lonesome man," then privately tells a waiter that the boxer is in love with another woman. After finding a picture of John with Kathy, Anne, too, realizes that John is not in love with her, and after meeting Kathy, Anne offers to divorce John if Kathy agrees to marry him. Despite Kathy's refusal, Anne leaves John, and the fighter turns more and more to the bottle. John's alcoholism causes him to lose his championship to James J. "Gentleman Jim" Corbett, and he retires from the ring. Later, after failing as an actor and a boxing referee, a penniless John is sent by Richard to visit the dying Anne, who insists that he return to Boston and Kathy. When his saloon is repossed, Kathy proposes to John herself, but he rejects her, believing that she is asking out of pity. Having reached the bottom, John finally recognizes his drinking problem, "his personal demon" as Father O'Malley calls it, and swears off drinking. The ex-champion then becomes a speaker for the temperance movement and is reunited with Kathy.